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Video Camera Networks Link Real-Time Partners in Crime-Solving

More cities link private-sector cameras to public safety surveillance networks.

Jonathan Lewin, Chicago’s managing deputy director of public safety, believes that video cameras help officers protect citizens — and he has numbers to back up his claim. The Chicago Police Department says that Operation Virtual Shield, the city’s network of public and private surveillance cameras, has led to more than 5,500 camera-related arrests since 2006.

Chicago, like a growing number of other cities, has dramatically extended its crime camera network by forging agreements with businesses and other private organizations. Perhaps half of the video feeds available to Chicago police now come from private cameras that can be accessed by law enforcement personnel, although the city won’t release an exact breakdown.

“I think this is just another example of how we need to work together with our partners, and no government entity can do it all on its own,” Lewin said.

In all, police have access to 20,000 video feeds from public and private sources, according to Ruben Madrigal, deputy director of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC). Crime surveillance experts access external feeds directly over the Internet through a public IP address. They tap into these feeds only during emergencies after owners are notified, according to the city. Police don’t record feeds they don’t own.

In addition to private-sector cameras, Chicago’s network includes thousands of cameras that are operated by agencies outside of public safety. For instance, Chicago Public Schools has more than 4,500 cameras; the Chicago Housing Authority has about 3,000 cameras; and O’Hare International Airport has at least 1,000 cameras. Private-sector cameras include units located on at least 11 buildings like Willis Tower and the Boeing and John Hancock buildings. Businesses and non-public safety agencies sign a memorandum of understanding to link their video feeds into the unified video surveillance network operated by the OEMC. The relationship is voluntary.

Lewin said these pre-existing agreements facilitate investigations. “If the police wanted the video and the private facility owner didn’t want to hand it over, there’d have to be some kind of a court order or subpoena,” he said. “With the agreements in place, obviously we’ve got an inventory of cameras by location. It saves a lot of time as a forensics tool as well.”

The majority of cameras are pan-tilt-zoom units, but police work with fixed units if those are all a business has available. “Some of the private-sector cameras that we tie into might be fixed, and that might be the best available cameras we can get,” Lewin said, “so obviously you take the best thing you can get.”

Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, said that public surveillance is on the rise.

“I think it grew exponentially in the last decade in response to Department of Homeland Security funds that were dedicated toward public surveillance systems,” she said. But cameras also are used for domestic applications. “[They’re] consistently used for domestic crime control and prevention purposes, so I see this as something that may well continue to grow.”

Chicago’s use of crime cameras has been expanding since 2003, when the police department installed 30 remote-controlled cameras in high-risk areas. The units were equipped with night vision, bulletproof exteriors and 360-degree pan and zoom capabilities that officers operated with joysticks. The cameras had distinct visual features, like flashing blue lights and the Chicago police logo, so people would know an area was under surveillance.

That initial deployment reduced narcotics-related calls by 76 percent and serious crimes by 17 percent, according to the city. Chicago increased the number of cameras from 30 to 80 by December 2003 and enhanced the system as years went by. Later phases of the project introduced more cameras and wireless capability so officers could control and view them from more locations.

In addition to Chicago, real-time, public-private camera arrangements are now in place in New York, Atlanta and Memphis.

Atlanta Launches Public-Private Camera Network

Late last year, Atlanta law enforcement officials launched a video surveillance system that will combine cameras operated by the private sector with city-owned assets. In September, police began monitoring 100 cameras located in downtown Atlanta from within the city’s new Video Integration Center.  

Officials intend to grow the network to several thousand cameras, according to a city announcement.

The Video Integration Center, manned by two sergeants and six sworn officers in Atlanta’s existing E911 Center, uses analytical software to track suspicious behavior. It will be closely linked to the E911 Center, officials said, in order to efficiently dispatch law enforcement to incidents.

“Public safety has been a top priority for my administration, and the Video Integration Center is a vital investment toward a safer city,” said Mayor Kasim Reed in a prepared statement. “We must continue to seek innovative ways to fight crime, and bringing together the public and private sectors allow us to share in the responsibility of keeping our streets safe for residents, workers, tourists and visitors alike.”

Atlanta’s video surveillance system is part of Operation Shield, a partnership between the Atlanta Police Department and Atlanta Police Foundation to link communications among public- and private-sector public safety entities.

So far, the project has cost more than $1 million, according to the city announcement, with funding coming from the city, private donations and the Police Foundation.

Privacy advocates have cried foul that the surveillance system conceivably could extend across the entire city with the inclusion of cameras maintained by private businesses. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that talks are under way to link cameras at private properties such as the CNN Center into the system.
Joining that list is Ogden, Utah, which has roughly 200 city-owned cameras with instant feeds that officers can monitor from a facility called the Real Time Crime Center. Ogden Police want to link up with thousands of private and government-owned cameras to put more digital eyes on the streets. The Utah Transit Authority and Utah Department of Transportation already are onboard.

Ogden officers have asked businesses for permission to access their surveillance feeds. Dave Weloth, the crime center’s director, told the Utah Standard-Examiner that the city would work with private representatives on the arrangement once an agreement is made. “After that, it’s up to the IT guys to sit down with them,” he said.

Ogden’s Real Time Crime Center, where Officers have access to integrated databases and video feeds, went live in July 2011. Software at the center also includes license plate reading and facial-recognition technology, and officers can tap into criminal histories for suspects and city addresses. Weloth told The Salt Lake Tribune that officers receive data en route to a crime scene and get continual updates once they arrive. Police hope to gain access to security cameras from banks and government buildings in the future, he said.

Weloth is certain that public surveillance systems aid businesses. “For a bank or a credit union, it enhances the safety of your customers and your employees. We look inside a bank during an alarm and say, ‘It looks like business as usual. Everyone looks fine,’ or we look at the cameras and say, ‘There are people lying on the floor. We need to increase our response.’”

In a report released last year, the Urban Institute wrote that, prior to its own study, little research existed to determine the effectiveness of public surveillance in America. Most existing evaluations covered cameras in the UK, and the studies that had covered American cameras either yielded mixed evidence on the cameras’ impact on crime, employed less thorough methodologies or didn’t “provide guidance based on real-life experiences of police agencies in the United States.”

The Urban Institute report — Evaluating the Use of Public Surveillance Cameras for Crime Control and Prevention — examined public surveillance in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C., to gauge the technology’s effectiveness.

It found that cameras reduced crime in most areas examined:

  • Roughly four months after cameras were installed in Baltimore in 2005, crime dropped, on average, by more than 30 incidents per month, and declines held steady through 2008. As of April 2008, the system’s estimated total cost was $224,000 per month for 36 months, but the estimated savings in criminal justice costs — police, court and corrections costs as well as victimization costs — was $334,000 per month.
  • In the Chicago area of Humboldt Park, the crime rate dropped 20 percent two months after cameras were installed in 2003 (there was a brief spike in crime the first month). Average monthly crime rates fell by one-third.
  • There was no change in crime rate in the Chicago area of West Garfield Park, but the cost-benefit of Humboldt Park’s cameras made up for both. The city spent about $190,000 per month on cameras but saved $815,000 a month.
  • In D.C., the cameras had no effect on crime.
Not all jurisdictions monitored their cameras the same way. The report labeled the viewing of real-time feeds as “active monitoring” and the viewing of recorded feeds as “passive monitoring.” Any area capable of viewing live feeds could record them to watch later as well, so real-time jurisdictions can do both.

The report recommends actively monitoring feeds so officers can intervene while crimes are in progress if departments want to maximize the value of their systems.

“In Baltimore, they had pretty intensive monitoring around the clock,” La Vigne said, “and in Chicago, nearly every sworn officer has the ability to monitor, but there’s less proactive, intensive monitoring. Then in D.C., there was really very little monitoring at all.”

But active monitoring requires people, and departments don’t always have the resources to staff posts to optimum benefit. “If they only budget to put the cameras up and they don’t have enough money to monitor them or maintain cameras, then you have cameras that aren’t working, even for pulling historical footage after crime events occur,” La Vigne said.

Chicago has officers monitoring cameras 24/7 in shifts, but they can only do so much.
“If you have 20,000 cameras in your federation, you don’t have 20,000 people monitoring the cameras, so there’s a physical limit to how many simultaneous video streams an average human can view, process and monitor at once,” Lewin said. Chicago uses analytics software that generates alerts to flag a camera if criminal activity seems be occurring, signaling to an officer to look there.

Live monitoring in Ogden typically only takes place for about an hour a day during a five-day workweek, but officers are inside the Real Time Crime Center full time regardless. All city-owned cameras are run to DVR, so officers can review recorded footage if necessary. “In the overall scope of time spent in the center, there’s very little that’s spent doing real-time monitoring of the cameras,” Weloth said.

But perhaps in Ogden, frequent real-time monitoring isn’t necessary. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 83,000 people lived there in 2010, compared to roughly 2.7 million in Chicago. That means a lot fewer people to watch.

La Vigne said robust camera deployments may not be best for small communities or places with low crime rates. “These small residential communities that have one horrible crime occur and they decide they want to do something about it and they’re going to install cameras — that’s not a good use of resources,” she said, though she didn’t name a specific city.

In any case, she and fellow researchers ended their research brief by writing that surveillance cameras are just tools in crime fighting, not a solution. They don’t replace officers, and they’re only as good as how they’re used.



Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.